Greenpeace, EJF urge Western buyers to pressure Taiwan to tighten its fishing regulations

Published on
December 17, 2020

Taiwan has the second-largest long-distance fleet in the world, and plays a central role in the international supply chain for fisheries products.

But in recent years, its distant-water fleet has been accused of human rights offenses, tainting its reputation. According to Greenpeace and other NGOs concerned with labor issues in the global fishing industry, Taiwan’s tuna-fishing firms, and major Western buyers, aren’t doing enough to stamp out long-running abuses taking place in the Taiwanese tuna fleet.

Greenpeace has pursued a multi-year campaign to persuade FCF Co., a Taiwan-based business and the largest tuna trader in the world, to make reforms, but its progress has not been adequate, according to Greenpeace East Asia Ocean Campaign Director Pearl (Peiyu) Chen. 

“FCF did show some improvement in their sustainability policies, but overall, [its] policies are still far from the international standards that Greenpeace campaigns for,” Chen told SeafoodSource. 

Furthermore, major seafood buyers, including leading U.S. retailers, are not doing enough to query their Taiwanese suppliers about their sourcing or fishing practices, Greenpeace USA Senior Oceans Advisor Andy Shen said.

“Some major U.S. brands and retailers have expressed concern, but they are doing far too little about it,” he told SeafoodSource. “Many of these buyers point to the Seafood Task Force as evidence of their efforts, but we have been critical of the many ways in which the STF is inadequate to address these serious issues. For example, the STF vessel code of conduct falls below international labor standards and best practices in many areas. Yet the buyers continue to promote industry-wide adoption of it.”

A major milestone occurred when the U.S. Department of Labor included Taiwan on its 2020 List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor, citing “persistent and systemic issues of forced labor in its distant-water fishing fleet.” The inclusion came after 19 NGOs and businesses urged the DOL to include the nation on its list after discoveries of forced labor on fishing vessels in Southeast Asia. 

Andy Shen thinks that “even though these buyers know forced labor is systemic” in the Taiwanese distant-water fishery industry, they are not taking enough steps to press for improvement.

“Very few are doing any human rights due diligence at the vessel level,” he said. “There is no systematic monitoring and enforcement of their code of conduct and even the few that are making some attempts are getting far too little coverage … [It’s] a fraction of the total numbers or vessels that supply them. And then the audits they do have questionable efficacy in ascertaining the real conditions of the workers.”

Shen called out Bumble Bee – which was purchased out of bankruptcy by FCF Co. in January 2020 – as well as Walmart and Costco for being “laggards on the forced labor issue.”

“But there are other buyers that are also simply not doing enough,” he said. “There seems to be some effort on ensuring their suppliers have policies without ensuring their polices are consistent with international standards or even compliance with those policies.”

Greenpeace was one of 34 organizations which last month sent a letter to Taiwan’s parliament seeking action. Taiwan’s distant-water fleet was also the target of a 2018 campaign by the Environmental Justice Foundation. And Taiwan initially responded positively, according to Chen, when it modified the regulation for migrant fishers employed overseas based on International Labor Organization Convention 188 in 2019.

“But of course, the regulation is still not completely compliant with [the convention],” Chen said.

Policymakers in Taiwan have shown interest in tackling the issue, “but when it comes to our demand to have all the migrant fishers to administered by Ministry of Labor instead of the Fisheries Agency, which doesn't have labor expertise, the government shows insufficient political willingness to move forward, given that it is always challenging to adjust jurisdiction among government agencies,” Chen said.

The European Union’s issuance of a yellow card to Taiwan in 2015 galvanized the island-nation to reform its fishery regulations and establish regulations governing the management of overseas employment of foreign crew members, Chen said. That law was later modified to be more consistent with the ILO’s Convention 188 by, for instance, prohibiting manning agencies from charging migrant fishers of guarantee deposit and placement fees, and allowing the migrant fishermen to terminate their contracts any time they want and to be repatriated.

However, the yellow card was rescinded in 2019, and since then, progress has stalled. The Environmental Justice Foundation issued renewed criticism of the country’s distant-water fleet on 30 November, relaying reports of alleged mistreatment of crew onboard Taiwanese longliners, including reports of insufficient food, shifts of 20 hours or more and withheld wages. The EJF investigation, “Cetacean Slaughter, Shark-Finning and Human Rights Abuse in Taiwan’s Fishing Fleet,”  also found Taiwanese vessels had harpooned dolphins, dragged them, and electrocuted them using a car battery to kill them. The dolphins were then butchered and used as shark bait.

“With a fleet of over 1,000 vessels operating across three oceans and landing catch in 32 ports across the world, Taiwan’s vessels undeniably have a significant impact on global ocean ecosystems. Hunting dolphins in this way is not only cruel and wasteful, it removes key species that are central to the health of marine ecosystems,” EJF Executive Director Steve Trent said in a press release. “Human rights abuse goes hand-in-hand with this illegal fishing, and Taiwan authorities must act urgently to enhance transparency and enforcement and put an end to both. Effective electronic monitoring, with cameras on vessels, especially those that are high risk of offending, is a crucial step.”

Another request being made by NGOs – with Greenpeace primary among them – is that Taiwan limit its fishing vessels to a maximum of three months at sea before requiring them to return to port for labor inspections, or in the absence of inspections, audits. Greenpeace has also called for the introduction of an “at-sea grievance mechanism” for fishers on all Taiwanese vessels.

Enforcement of existing laws remains patchy in part because the Taiwanese distant-water industry often hires abroad using foreign manpower agencies, which often operate beyond the regulatory powers of the Taiwanese government to regulate, according to Chen.

“Fishers [are] employed overseas [and] sometimes never come to Taiwan, and the government won't know about wrongdoings until fishers report abuses to local labor unions or NGOs,” he said. 

Greenpeace urged major Western seafood buyers to back its recommendations.

“These are practical measures to prevent and address forced labor, and the lack of action by buyers shows a lot about how much they really care about the rights and lives of the workers in their supply chains,” Chen said.

SeafoodSource contacted the Taiwanese government and Bumble Bee Foods for comment on this story, but neither responded before publication.

Photo courtesy of Environmental Justice Foundation

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